Another month led me to another 3-Bag and another classic issue of AVENGERS. This period has to be considered one of the high points in the series’ run, with writer Jim Shooter being backed up on artwork by George Perez (and John Byrne for a storyline.) Coming into the book at this point, it definitely gave the impression that the Avengers were the A-Team of the Marvel Universe–something that it had been considered for many years, yet somehow often didn’t quite live up to. This was the big guns, the heavy hitters, facing insurmountable odds–just what I wanted in a comic book.
As I’ve mentioned previously, it was this two-parter and its sequel a few issues later that truly established Ultron as one of the Avengers’ (and by extension the Marvel Universe’s) most formidable villains. Prior to this, the character had only appeared three times (outside of some flashbacks to the origin of the Vision and so forth.) Creator Roy Thomas made him malevolent but didn’t appear to be particularly interested in the characters’ psychological workings. He was just an evil robot, based loosely on a character Roy had seen in an old issue of CAPTAIN VIDEO when he was just a reader. Steve Englehart and Gerry Conway had used Ultron as a threat during the wedding of Crystal and Pietro, but he was taken out halfway through the climactic issue by a comatose Franklin Richards–not really the best showing for a top flight villain. But Shooter both gave him a body composed of indestructible adamantium (which made him a physical match for the strongest Avengers) and also worked out the Oedipal Complex that defined his villainy. Ultron wanted to kill his father and marry his mother–and that’s what this story was all about.
This issue opened on a key subplot moment, though we readers wouldn’t realize it for several months. Thor shows up at Avengers Mansion, where his fellow Avengers are being carted off to the morgue, casualties of the twin attacks of the deranged Ant-Man and Ultron last month. Despite the fact that he had left the active roster to spend more time in Asgard, all throughout Shooter’s run, Thor would turn up whenever the Avengers were in a jam. This wasn’t bad plotting but rather the set-up to the upcoming storyline featuring the Collector, who was pulling Thor out of time to assist the Avengers whenever they were in danger so that they’d be hale and hearty for him to collect himself. Thor is quickly brought up to speed on what happened by Iron Man, Wonder Man and the Black Panther, who are pretty much the only Avengers left standing. But Ultron has apparently killed Captain America, the Beast, the Scarlet Witch and the Vision already. So maybe the Collector could have been a little bit faster on the trigger with his Thor rescue squad.
Ultron, meanwhile, has taken the Wasp and the amnesiac Ant-Man to a Stark International laboratory that he’s commandeered secretly for his own purposes. There, he tells Ant-Man that he rescued the diminutive hero from the Avengers impostors who attacked him, but not before they fatally wounded the Wasp. The only way to save here, says he, is to transfer her essence into an android that Ultron has prepared–and android who will become known as Jocasta. Ultron is the one responsible for Hank Pym’s amnesia–he needed Pym’s genius to make the transfer of personalities work, but knew that any Hank Pym who recognized him would never help him with his plan. So by regressing the hero to his earliest days, he’d gotten around this problem. I feel like I have to mention too that it was a bit provocative and titillating that Ultron has the Wasp strapped up on his table naked. granted, those big metal restraints cover up all of the naughty bits, but this was a bit further than a Comics Code-approved title would typically go. (Also, i was 11 when I first read this book, the perfect age in this regard.) Ultron, of course, is concealing the fact that this personality-transfer is a one way street, and once Janet’s essence has enlivened his mate, Ultron will proceed to destroy the two fleshbags, Hank and Jan alike.
Back at the ranch, the Avengers are pretty stymied in their efforts to locate the whereabouts of Ultron–or even to call in some reserve firepower in the person of Hawkeye. But they get a break when they see a group of ants arranging themselves to form a message on the ground for them, indicating the Stark plant on Long Island. Assuming that either Hank or Jan has been able to get this message across, the four remaining Avengers race across the state, bursting in on Ultron and Ant-Man just as the transference is reaching a critical stage. Ultron proceeds to attempt to blast them with the same Encephalo Beam that put the other Avengers into a coma close to death (and reveals to these four that the others aren’t actually dead, just in a near-death state. Whew!) But Iron Man’s armor proves proof against the beam, and the heroes attempt to unload a can of whup-ass on the deranged automaton.
But Ultron is still Ultron and his body is still indestructible, and he proceeds to fight off the combined power of Thor, Iron Man and Wonder Man. It’s in this issue that Shooter sets up what was a pretty wonderful arc for Wonder Man who, having recently returned from the dead, is concerned about his own mortality. This fear makes him hesitate in battle, and his grappling with it made him a whole lot more appealing than he had been. The Panther, meanwhile, has clocked Ant-Man, but he doesn’t understand Ultron’s equipment well enough to reverse the process or even stop it without potentially killing the Wasp. And the fateful moment is approaching when the process will reach the point of no return. With no other options open to him, Iron Man grabs Jocasta and threatens to blow her head off if Ultron doesn’t reveal to them how to put the brakes on this thing. Ultron thinks this may be a bluff on the armored Avenger’s part–but he ultimately cannot risk the destruction of his long-desired mate. So he relents, telling the Avengers what they need to know and then lighting out of there before they can capture or waylay him.
So the Avengers have won, but the taste of victory is a bitter one. The Panther in particular is bothered by the dishonorable manner in which they triumphed. But Iron Man tells him to stuff it, while inwardly contemplating whether or not he would have pulled the trigger and murdered Jocasta (and by extension Janet) if Ultron hadn’t backed down. So the Wasp is saved, and the Avengers now have the information needed to revive their other members. Ant-man is still off his nut, but they seem to be relatively blasé about getting him back to sanity (and indeed, by the next issue he appears in, he’s back to being Yellowjacket as though nothing had happened.) But one mystery remains: who commanded the ants to send the message to the Avengers brining them to this location. It wasn’t the Wasp–she didn’t have her equipment. And Ant-Man still considers the Avengers his enemies. In the final panels, the Panther concludes that this must have been done by Jocasta herself–having been inhabited by Jan’s spirit at least in part. It’s a pretty great issue all around, with some excellent artwork from Perez (who again packs in a ton of incident on pages containing sometimes up to 10 panels without it all becoming overcrowded), some terrific and memorable action backed up by strong character work.